Breaking down the process

29 June, 2018. On a lark, I began to take some of the black and white sketches I’d made in situ and add after-the-fact touches of gouache. The play of flat against rendered tonality, the artifice of contrasts, and the general sense of “what the heck sort of layer is going on here?” intrigued me, and appealed to my perverse delight in perplexing others. Interest in these sketchbook pages just sort of exploded on Instagram, and I’ve fielded quite a few questions over the past two or three days. With that in mind I’m summarizing a general breakdown of the process today.

First off, it’s important to note that all of these come from life observations during my recent travel to Vermont, New Hampshire, and Martha’s Vineyard. In this example, I began by roughing in some fishermen who were finishing up their day, pulled up to the pier in Menemsha Harbor on Martha’s Vineyard. Something I very seldom do is use a pencil to make a light construction drawing – usually, I just work directly with a pen and trust my instincts. But as you’ll note, I did use a pencil not only on this sketch but on all of the others in this post as well. The advantage, I suppose, is that it provides one with the flexibility to do the graphite drawing in situ, and embellish with ink, paint, or whatever later on. In fact, I began the inked lines in the field and finished them later on – frankly, I wasn’t convinced that I had a decent composition to work with. I nearly abandoned things at this point.

Later on, the contour lines inked, I blocked in the water entirely in black using a Pitt marker which is loaded with India ink. This is a compositional device, and it helps me to make a graphic statement, as well as establish points of emphasis. The contrast is a favorite tool of mine, but in this case I still wasn’t convinced the sketch had anywhere to go. I began to reconsider what elements I’d initially chosen to emphasize.

And here we are: Trying to maintain a visual flow with points of emphasis that are roughly triangular in shape, I’ve woven in spots of color. I’m using gouache because it is opaque enough to cover the gray-toned ground of the paper. It’s also matte, like the surface of the paper, so they mesh well, visually. Areas such as the top of the posts and the type get hit with a white gel pen – I rather like how that tends to pop off the gray tone of the Stillman & Birn sketchbook paper. The posts, by the way, bothered me left in the gray of the paper, so I changed them to a pattern of inked lines and decided I really hated that look. I’m much happier having used the black India ink to silhouette them. Notice that the water, which had been similarly silhouetted earlier in the process, has had a layer of gouache added, impacting the previous compositional decisions so that the visual structure is more interesting.

In Hanover, New Hampshire, on the Dartmouth campus, rain began to fall and I sheltered under one of the huge trees lining the streets there. At the corner, one pedestrian was so engrossed in something on his iPhone that he missed not one, but three crossing lights! It’s not often that I get a street subject to stand still for any length of time; realizing what was happening I quickly penciled in the basics of his figure. (I had to sort of guess at the umbrella after he’d wandered across the road.) Leaning against a tree trunk I penciled in the truck and some indications of environment, then inked the contour lines while I waited out the shower.

The same process applies here. I’m especially happy with the leading lines that make this compositional design work. The lettering, once again, was filled in with the white gel pen, as were a couple of the flourishes: the boat in the background and the highlighted edges of the plastic containers. As with all of these examples, the gouache was not added in the field, but much later on.

For this sketch, made during lunch in Edgartown, I used my Kuretake No. 40 brush pen rather than a Uni-Ball. I’m not certain, but I think this may have been the only time I used that particular drawing tool on this trip… when things are working for me, I tend to stick with them. The ladies sitting at the bar were easy subjects for the duration of my meal (which, by the by, included the first $20 hamburger I’ve ever eaten.) This was actually the first gouache experiment I made in my sketchbook. The drawing was nice but felt empty somehow. What, I asked myself, would be the worst that could happen if I added touches of gouache over the linework? Would it get too “cartoon-y?”

That experiment led to the series I’m currently working on. Meanwhile, I’m also developing some straight plein-air work with gouache. It’s just a gouache sort of time for me, I suppose.

Final note here: I want to point out that despite the emphasis on technique in this blog posting, what’s most important to me than anything else, and what works for me in all of these is a sense of story. I’m interested in making sketches that communicate some narrative component and I’m happy that one can look at these sketches and ask, “What’s going on here?” When that happens I feel that my efforts have been successful.

People and their places

28 June, 2018. As I wrote in my sketch notes, the place is pretty much what one would expect from a traditional diner, especially one built out of an old Pullman car: burgers, fries, shakes, hand-packed ice cream. Nothing green at all at the Windsor Diner, except the pickles.

We stopped very briefly. Accompanied by friends, it turned out after studiously reading the menu that none of them were up for ground beef – or, for that matter, deep-fried anything at all. My sketches were rushed as can be… seeing which way the winds were blowing, I scribbled as quickly as I could before everyone decided to load back into the cars and head for greener pastures and food. Too bad, really – I would have been happy with a burger.

I’m really interested in people and “their” place in the world, whether that’s at a bar or at work, strolling through their neighborhood, wherever they fit in. Each of us create and define our own places. I find it interesting to translate those moments into a drawing, or – if I’m feeling ambitious enough – into a painting.

Same small Vermont village: The longest covered bridge in the country, a great ice cream joint, and a museum one might pass by without a second thought… and what an oversight that would be to miss this “Precision” museum, located in the building where the first interchangeable parts were designed and manufactured. The huge structure itself is cool, but the incredibly steam-punk looking equipment on display on the inside is  a lesson in history, design, and tooling. And it’s not too much to state that the work which took place in the structure during the 19th century was largely responsible for much of the Industrial Revolution.

One volunteer, upon responding to a posed question realized he had a captive audience. I like to have never escaped!

The museum building itself is the former Robbins and Lawrence Armory and Machine Shop. We weren’t given access to the upper floors, but from the outside it’s clear there’s much more, architecturally speaking, to see. With time to spare, I had the opportunity to sketch out this interesting detail. A bell tower? Perhaps – but I didn’t want to go back in and ask the old coot inside for fear of getting captured again.

Each small town or village we hiked through in Vermont had a distinctly historic aroma. Layers of different architectural design left the observant person with a sense of structural collage.

One side excursion we made was to visit a falconry where we got to interact with falcons and owls. The first time one of the falcons flew to perch on my heavily leather-gloved arm startled the hell out of me!

One thing of note that I always consider when I travel is the kit I choose to carry. On this trip I packed much of my kit around using an Etchr Slate Mini art satchel. It’s a (mostly) good design and probably of interest to many who walk and draw, especially for those who need a “studio” on the road. I’ll save my review of this product for a later post though.

As usual, I try to carry as little as possible. On the days I chose not to carry kit in the Etchr, I tried different combinations until I settled on one that worked well for the places we traversed and the modes of travel we chose. Usually – although not exclusively – this meant a Uni-Ball Vision pen and one of the sketchbooks I brought with me. If I carried a book with white paper then I also had a water brush and small watercolor travel palette. As our travel progressed, my preference leaned more toward the gray-toned paper of a Stillman & Birn sketchbook, so the watercolor got replaced by white gel pen.

Those tools got a lot of use as we journeyed south to Martha’s Vineyard. More about sketching on the island next time.


Sketching in Vermont

26 June, 2018. I’m home and relaxing in my comfortable leather arm chair. I’ve been absent from these pages for the past few weeks; June is my “travel” month. We’ve come to eschew laptops while we explore, which means no work, no writing – and no updates to this online sketching journal. But I’m back now, and it’s time to get caught up.

Over the next couple of days I’ll be posting sketches from Vermont, New Hampshire, Boston, and Martha’s Vineyard. The first leg of travel extended through large parts of Vermont and some of New Hampshire, where small towns are populated by colonial architecture before suddenly merging into dense wooded areas, rolling hills, and narrow, steep roads. I made the sketch, above, in a wire-bound Fabriano sketchbook. The thin pages take ink nicely but it took me several failed attempts to get used to the almost slick surface of the paper. Eventually, I got the hang of it but I prefer the slight “drag” my pen has on a paper with a little more tooth. The color, incidentally, was added on my iPhone using Adobe Draw. The jury is out for me on this approach – the process feel too sterile to me, even though the “product” looks interesting.

The small Stillman & Birn sketchbook I picked up before embarking is filled with a heavy, gray-toned paper. It’s worked nicely for making three-value drawings: black, white, middle gray.

And while it seemed at first that the limitations would result in a look that sort of resembles a block print, I’m discovering ways to loosen up a little. This is particularly important with the white gel pen, which demands a rather deliberate approach to the application of marks.

As usual, I found myself drawn to the architecture and the architectural detail. This little sketchbook provides a good structure for recording thoughts and sketches. The limited value range brings about a rather graphic look to the illustrations.

In the next post I’ll share sketches of people and the places in Vermont where they live.

Farmer’s Market

10 June, 2018. Saturday morning, and a pretty sparsely attended farmer’s market in Liberty. Seriously, there were perhaps only a quarter of the farmer’s stalls set up that I usually see parked around the square. I wanted to get some odds and ends for cooking, as well as painting. Some fresh young garlic seemed to fit my need: I sketched and painted it at home, then sautéed some of it for a pasta dish at dinner.

The Amish were out in force though. I always enjoy chatting with them, but I’m not sure what the protocol is for making sketches – I know that photography is off limits, but drawings? Anyway, rather than making anyone feel self conscious or – and this is more to the point – or creating a cultural rift, I draw from a distance and take liberties with the subject matter.

A pint of wild strawberries tasted mighty fine, and I supped on them as I sat on the courthouse steps and sketched the various tableau that played out below.

On the corner where the lamp shop used to be, a coffee shop has quickly evolved into the single most popular destination on the square. I see the place filled every time I pedal past, with people on the move, always going in and out.

I’m not a big birthday guy.

8 June, 2018. I’m not. I don’t like parties. I don’t like getting stuck in the midst of a bunch of people all talking at the same time. I prefer to be an observer, which probably comes as something of a shock to some who know me well.

So I’m on my own today and I promised myself to turn off the cell phone, unplug from technology, and wander. (Try it sometime. It’s surprisingly liberating.) I planned to begin the day with a long, leisurely ride, then collect my sketch kit and roam around the art museum for a while, before going in search of interesting foods.

I felt a little like Ferris Bueller, finding myself in so many different places. One of those places  was this downtrodden neighborhood on Kansas City’s east side.

And yes, I saw a woman out walking her pet pig. This one was relatively small, like a fat Yorkie, I guess. But it reminds me that it hasn’t been that many months past when I saw a woman walking two full size hogs on a leash through a Wal-Mart in Arkansas. This was a bit more reasonable.

For lunch I wanted Seafood Jambalaya, so I went in search of Cajun. I was intrigued by this guy who seemed intent on studying every aspect of the drink menu, but then after much deliberation wound up ordering a Corona Light.

I could barely see the woman at the other end of the bar. She was mostly blocked from view by a large dude. But I loved that his form created an interesting compositional device so that I could draw the eye to her face, which sported a mildly suspicious looking glare.

Further afield I found myself walking through the Shoal Creek Living History Museum, a place set up like a nineteenth century small town in Missouri. A bit like the scenery in High Noon, I wound up drawing the whitewashed church structure.

And then there was this guy, who noticed me looking at him. So I drew his reaction.

Black and White, and Grey All Over.

4 June, 2018. Over the past couple of days I’ve carried around two pens – my trusty Uni-Ball Deluxe and a white gel pen – and this small, pocket-size Stillman and Birn sketchbook. As always, I’m interested in seeing just how far I can push my sketches while purposefully placing limitations on myself. In this case, the limitation is range of value: black, white, grey, and the implied value created by hatching.

It’s interesting to me how different textures can be achieved by varying the strokes, as well as changing the lines into shapes.

The format of this booklet is so damn small that it does force me to consider positive and negative relationships, as well as recognizing the limitations of drawing across gutters and within the margins.

I also have to stop myself from going to far, making too many marks. Limiting the mark-making and relying on contrasts is effective. As with my choice to draw and later add a spot color to sketches, there’s a mechanical appearance when working on the grey paper that I like.

Selectively choosing which elements get the addition of white allows me to be selective about which elements get emphasized. I think there are some real storytelling opportunities working with this illustration approach, but for now it’s just me fooling around.